My 10 Favorite YA Novels

The other day I shared a post about what makes YA so special (click here to read it), and it made me start thinking about all of the YA books that I love. So, I decided to share my personal list of favorite YA novels, in no particular order.

Divergent by Veronica Roth. I literally can’t even type that title without smiling. I have loved this novel since it first came out, and have used it as a read aloud with my students every year. It’s honestly a book that has turned many of my non-readers into readers. I love it because the plot is fast paced with lots of twists, the characters are incredibly relatable, and there is just a hint of mystery that keeps readers on their toes. It’s not the typical mushy gushy teen love story, but shows the importance of teamwork in a relationship.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. These books just make my heart so happy. I have read this series more times than I can count, and I am now addicted to the audio books. This to me will always be a staple in YA literature culture because it sparked a movement in our society that showed the power of a book. I love it because it’s beyond imaginative and creative in terms of plot, the characterization is incredible as we see them grow up, and the timeless theme of good vs. evil is captivating.

The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney. When I was in middle school I saw the TV movie of this novel and instantly fell in love with the story. For the next 15 years ish I read the series and followed Janie’s story. When the final story was released a few years ago, I knew I wanted to somehow introduce my students to this incredible mystery. I dedicated an entire school year read aloud to my honors sixth grade students every day for 10 minutes. We literally cried on the last day we finished the series because we were all so emotionally invested in the characters. I absolutely LOVE how intricate and complex the plot is, especially as readers discover more about certain characters. This is a fabulous option for students who love realistic mysteries.

The City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. I feel like I’m home whenever I re-read this series. The characters are some of my best friends, especially because they can always make me laugh with their wit and sarcasm. As a reader, I love that I can be a total English nerd and analyze this text for religious symbolism and a whole slew of inferences. This is definitely a series I would read with a pen and highlighter in hand. I tried to watch Shadowhunters when it was a TV series, and I couldn’t make it through the first episode because I didn’t want to destroy my personal version in my head. The use of fantasy in this series sucks readers into a world they will never want to leave. I’m also a fan of the maturity of this series, which gives it a really great YA feel.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. I truly don’t have enough words to describe my love for this novel. I remember reading it in 6th grade, and I still have my original copy. While the plot and characters are fabulous, I LOVE the underlying messages in this text. The battle of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, government control, and so, so much more. I love the feeling of empowerment this book gives readers to fight for what’s right. The symbolism is so decadent and rich, which makes it an amazing novel to use with middle school readers. Truthfully, I get excited whenever I do my Wrinkle unit.

Pop Princess by Rachel Cohn. I remember seeing this book at my local library as a teen and devouring it. Teens are always fascinated about being a celebrity and living that kind of lifestyle. Since I grew up in the 2000s, hello bubble gum pop era, this book got my attention. I love how the plot took readers on a realistic journey as Wonder went from working at Dairy Queen to being a pop sensation. It felt very 2000s, and was a fun, quick read.

Dreamland by Sarah Dessen. I mentioned this text in my previous post, What’s So Special About YA?, so it obviously had to make my list. One of my favorite aspects about YA novels is there really are no boundaries when it comes to plot. This one touches on a very sensitive subject of abuse, but I think that’s why I like it so much. While it doesn’t sugar coat anything, the writing isn’t too in your face and instead shows readers Caitlin’s experience. I love the use of POV in this one, because we gain an insight into what victims of abuse go through.

The Selection by Kiera Cass. Full disclosure, I’m addicted to reality TV, specifically the Real Housewives franchise. When I first started reading this series I could taste the reality TV feel right away. It’s very Bachelor in a sense. However, the reality feel doesn’t stay for very long before it morphs into a love story with some major problems. I loved the fun tone of this series and of course the idea of a prince and princess. I honestly made my classes have a reading day the day the final book came out just so I could read it (which they totally didn’t mind).

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I know, I know. Similar to Harry Potter, Twilight sparked something in our society which turned it into an incredible phenomenon. Werewolves, vampires and a love story don’t sound that exciting until you read the series. During the peak of its popularity, it wasn’t uncommon for readers to pick a team, which readers still take extremely seriously. I will forever be Team Jacob, and I apologize if I offend anyone. (Never go back to a man that left you). It’s an incredibly easy read that speaks to the heart of teenage girls because they all want that deep love.

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick. This is probably the most underrated YA book I’ve ever come across. For the life of me I don’t understand how it was never more popular. This was my very first unit plan during my practicum experience and it will always hold a special place in my heart. I love the realness of this novel. Steven’s little brother is diagnosed with cancer. We follow Steven as he deals with an incredibly challenging home life and dealing with middle school all at the same time. The dialogue and characterization are spot on for an 8th grade boy, which makes the story that much better.

 

What’s So Special About YA?

When we often think of children’s literature we immediately think of classics like The Secret Garden, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, etc. Yet, as many educators and parents know, a children’s section of a library does not just mean picture books.

When a child feels they have outgrown the “baby” books, but they are too young for the adult section, they are ready to enter the young adult (YA) section of a library.

But, what exactly is YA? What makes it so special? This genre is much more than just an in-between one for readers who are usually in middle and high school.

YA tends to focus on main characters who are between the ages of 12-18. Why? Because this is the main demographic of readers. Tween/teen readers want to read about characters who are around their age, so it makes sense that main characters in YA are on the younger side.

YA also tends to focus on plot points that deal with family, friendship, love, authority, leadership and growing up. While the YA genre can be broken down into subcategories such as sci-fi and fantasy, it’s important to realize that these same ideas are present regardless of the sub genre. Tween/teen readers are going through a lot at this stage of life. They are constantly dealing with bullying, social media, dating, family issues, puberty, and more. It’s not wonder they turn to YA novels to seek answers they may not even know they are looking for. While they probably won’t read a self help book, they may look at how Percy Jackson dealt with learning the truth about his family in The Lightning Thief, and see him as a role model.

YA novels are extremely powerful tools to help readers cope with reality.

Truthfully, any reader will tell you they read to escape reality, even if it’s just to relax at night before bed. The same happens to adolescent readers. If you were to Google popular YA novels, quite a few of them are sci-fi or fantasy based. Why? These types allow readers to completely forget about their reality. For just a little bit they can be a participant in The Hunger Games and watch Katniss kick some major butt.

There is also a sense of maturity in reading YA. Oftentimes the content can be more suggestive, gritty, and real. Gone are the G rated books, and readers can step into worlds where they mention sex, drugs, alcohol, smoking, violence, etc. This is where parents usually get nervous about YA. In truth, when I have read YA books aloud to my students I have omitted words, sentences, or whole sections of a chapter. We need to remember that these books are meant to draw in readers from ages 12-18, so of course there’s going to be some things not meant for sixth grade students.

However, with the aid of technology, it’s easy for a parent to check to see if a book is appropriate for a tween. My personal go to checker is CommonSenseMedia.org, which can be used as a guide for parents, educators and advocates.

Personally, I also find that YA is raw on an emotional level. Characters take us on an emotional journey with them as they make decisions and live through experiences. One of my favorite YA novels is Dreamland by Sarah Dessen. I read it in middle school and have returned to it a few times since then. We see the main character, Caitlin, go through the shock of dealing with her runaway sister, and how that emotional trauma led her down a dangerous path of drugs and a physically abusive relationship. Caitlin expresses why she stays with Rogerson and isolates herself from her friends and family, which is truly an emotional journey filled with anger, sadness, and love.

As an adult reader, I am still drawn to YA because of these factors. The writing is incredible, and the characters are truly real people to readers.

Braced Book Review

As readers, we all have books that speak to us. As I tell my students, we all read the same book differently. Why? Because each reader approaches a text with different life experiences.

I’m going to warn you, this is the most difficult book review I’ve had to do because of my own connection to the text. I read the book in one night and couldn’t stop ugly crying for a solid hour. Never have I read a book that has connected with me on such a personal and intimate level. I have purposely waited a few days to write this post because I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my thoughts out in a way that makes sense.

Braced by Alyson Gerber is a phenomenal story about Rachel Brooks who has to wear a back brace for scoliosis.

Scoliosis is when a person’s spine doesn’t grow straight during puberty. The severity depends on the degree of the spine’s curvature. Most scoliosis patients are fitted with a padded back brace to try and shift the spine. However, in some cases, the brace does not correct the curve enough and surgery is required.

Rachel is an average seventh grader. She has two best friends, plays soccer, and is about to be a big sister. Like her mom, Rachel has scoliosis and is required to wear a back brace for 23 hours a day in the hopes of avoiding spinal surgery.

The story follows Rachel’s journey living with the brace. From the appointment with Dr. Paul where she finds out she needs the brace, to telling her friends and people at school, to learning to play soccer, readers are part of every step.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is how personal and honest Rachel is to readers. Like other middle school girls, Rachel is going through puberty and dealing with so many different emotions. She has a crush on a boy named Tate and wants to play offense on the soccer team. She’s embarrassed when she goes to see Dr. Paul because the is basically naked in front of strangers. She gets super excited when Tate texts her about personal stuff and not just about science class.

Rachel also opens up about the struggles of wearing a back brace. She gets frustrated when she can’t find clothes to fit her. She’s mad at her mom for not listening to her. She’s scared to tell her friends about her brace. She works incredibly hard to play soccer differently so she can make the team. She’s hurt when the popular kids make fun of her brace. It’s challenging enough to go through middle school years without the additional worries of being different.

One of the major conflicts in the novel is Rachel’s relationship with her very pregnant mom. As readers, we learn that Rachel’s mom had scoliosis, wore a brace, and eventually had surgery. Mom is so focused on Rachel wearing her brace for the 23 hours to avoid the surgery that she loses sight of the emotional part of the brace. This disconnect drives a wedge between the two, which intensifies Rachel’s feelings of isolation because if anyone should understand what is happening, it’s her mom. The writing of this conflict is realistic, and is one that all middle school girls can relate to.

As adults, we sometimes forget how important friends can be to kids. As a middle school teacher, I have seen my fair share of middle school social drama. Braced dives into the support system that friends can offer one another. Hazel and Frannie are Rachel’s best friends. While they are both dealing with their own situations, they both help Rachel combat the kids at school, soccer stress, and Rachel’s mom. If it wasn’t for these two young ladies, it’s clear that Rachel would have struggled even more.

I love how Gerber incorporated texting and realistic social situations to appeal and relate to current middle school readers. As adults, we don’t have that first hand experience of texting a boy when we were in seventh grade, so it’s hard to sometimes realize the impact that social media and technology can have on kids. While this book doesn’t focus on social media posts, it does remind us that when the school day is over, the drama/situations don’t just stay at school.

While I loved the characters and plot of this novel, one of the most important components was the theme of isolation. Rachel has no one to talk to about what is happening to her because they are not experiencing it with her. No one understands how insanely hot the brace gets in the summer, or how exciting it is to find clothes that actually fit. Kids at school just see Rachel as “different”, and while she has a great friend support system, they just don’t get it. The story ends with Rachel googling support groups and finding Curvy Girls (a scoliosis support group) and realizing that she is not alone. I loved how Gerber ended with this because it is important for kids to realize there are always others out there with similar experiences.

Lastly, my absolute favorite part of this book was the Author’s Note where Gerber discusses her personal experiences with scoliosis and her brace. “It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, when I started talking about my experience of being treated for scoliosis, that I realized how alone I’d felt.” Never ever has a quote spoken to me as loudly as this one.

I was diagnosed with scoliosis in fifth grade. I had to wear my brace with the Bugs Bunny tattoo for 20 hours a day. I had an “S” curve that was extremely stubborn and did not respond well to the brace.

I was very fortunate to have a supportive team of teachers. If the activity in gym class would make me uncomfortable, I just told the teacher and she let me sit out and watch. I didn’t want to change in front of the other girls in my grade, so I was allowed to use the teacher’s bathroom. I had copies of textbooks at home so I didn’t have to worry about carrying them back and forth to school. I was fortunate that I never dealt with anything hurtful socially. I was always open and honest with kids about my brace, and never had to experience bullying.

On September 11, 2001 I went to go see Dr. Reiger for my usual progress check. I did the usual x-ray and waited in the cold room with my purple socks on. After he came in and asked about my boyfriend (he had a fabulous bedside manner) he told me my curve had progressed to 55 degrees and was heading towards my heart. I would need emergency spinal surgery.

On January 2, 2002 I had my titanium rod fused to my spine. For the next six months I healed a little bit more every day. I was out of school for four months, and slowly transitioned to half days towards the end of the year.

I remember one day I refused to go to school. I had a screaming match with my mom and I kept trying to tell her no one understands what I’m feeling, but she didn’t get it. Back then there was no social media and the only book was Deenie by Judy Blume (lovely book, but a little outdated for even back then). That feeling has never completely gone away for me. As I get older I talk about it more, even to my students, and I amaze myself that I was so strong.

Today, I don’t worry so much about my 18 inch scar showing in bathing suits. I had a healthy pregnancy and safe delivery with Miss Molly, even with the rod. I know what my body can handle and what it can’t (I will NEVER jump on a trampoline again). And one day when Molly is old enough, we will read Braced together and talk.

June is Scoliosis Awareness Month. As a teacher and a parent, I’m reminded how important it is for us to listen to kids. Even if we don’t understand or think the same way they do, kids have to talk about their feelings. We need to read books like Braced, and have open and honest discussions. I will admit that I cried writing this book review, and I’m pretty sure I have a tear drop on my glasses. But, that’s just a sign of fantastic writing.

Agent 603 Book Review

Like many others, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. This past week has been all love though because I was invited to join a new Facebook group that connects children’s book authors with bloggers. I have about 5 new books on my To Read list so I can write some exciting reviews, which makes my reading heart quite happy.

I’ve spent the last eight years working with middle school students, so I have a soft spot for any texts for this age group. Agent 603 by Tabitha Bell is an ADORABLE story about a teddy bear who is really a secret agent. Based on the writing style, some advanced vocabulary and humor, I would recommend this book for students in grades 4-6.

Our main character is Agent 603, later named Mr. Snuggles, who is a teddy bear fresh out of secret agent training. As readers, we dive into the details of his first mission. The point of view is mostly in first person, and we get to know our cuddly character very well. He is dramatic, clumsy and a foodie, making him relatable to readers. He tends to always have food on his mind, which adds to the humor of the book.

One of my absolute favorite aspects about this novel is the humor. The story is structured like a secret agent case file, but every so often an amendment for the record interjects some realities about the situation. These amendments had me lol’ing for real, which doesn’t happen to me as a reader. I started reading the novel on my phone while I was getting my hair done (love the Kindle app) and I had to use my close reading strategies and highlight some of my favorite parts.

Agent 603 Excerpt

The plot is very imaginative and reflects how children think. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book as creative as this one in terms of characterization and plot, which made the novel super engaging to me. There were a few points that I got confused with the plot because of the immense attention to detail, but it wasn’t enough to distract me from reading. This happened once or twice when Mr. Snuggles ventured into the closet and experienced new surroundings every time.

A theme that really struck me while reading this novel was imagination. Without giving anything away, the falling action allowed readers to see what can happen if we aren’t afraid to be creative and use our imaginations. Personally, I think this is a fantastic theme in a book for this age group. Students at this point are in the weird transition period of puberty, and teachers often see this in the behaviors of students. We can tell when some students haven’t hit that stage yet because they tend to have over active imaginations and immaturity. This book highlighted that having an over active imagination is a positive aspect and to embrace it. Having worked with sixth grade students for years, I was very drawn to this because kids often hide their true thoughts to fit in with others.

This is definitely one book that should be in a classroom library. I think it would attract those readers who enjoy adventure and humor types of books. I can’t wait to see the next mission that Mr. Snuggles goes on.

Using Zinnia and the Bees in the Classroom

Last week I posted a book review of Zinnia and the Bees by Danielle Davis. I really enjoyed this book, and while I was reading I had a bunch of different ideas go through my head about incorporating it into the classroom or homeschool curriculum. Today, I want to share my ideas. This post is for educators and homeschool families.

Reading the Text

Depending on your curriculum and classroom structure, this book may fit best as a whole class read aloud. I would try and pair it up with other texts that revolve around friendship, family, environment or nature since those are the biggest themes present.

Pairing Fiction with Nonfiction

Since the introduction of the Common Core, there has been a push for pairing fiction texts with nonfiction texts. Zinnia and the Bees provides a great connection for this with the concept of migratory bees.

After doing a little bit of research, I came across a perfect article to introduce and explain the importance of migratory beekeeping. The Mind-Boogling Math of Migratory Beekeeping is a fantastic article from 2013 that dives into detail about bees and the impacts they have on our food. This text is a little challenging because of all the math included, so I would suggest doing a partner or whole-class read with the article. Kids should also highlight the text for information they find interesting or important. After kids read and highlight, I would suggest having them complete reading questions (click here) to solidify their understanding of the material.

Some other ideas for infusing nonfiction with this text:

-online scavenger hunt about bees

-research project on current situation with migratory bees

-compare and contrast migratory bees in other countries

Discussing the Book

One of my favorite aspects about this book is the diversity of themes that it covers. You can do whole class or small group discussions about the following themes:

-Bullying

-Friendship

-Family

-Environment

-Death

-Trust

-Change

If you use this for a read aloud, try asking a theme related question each day (trust me there is lots of material) to help generate discussions.